The Jewish Roots of Beatlemania

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10 Feb 2014

This article originally appeared in The Jewish Star.


Shown from left: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Bruce 'Cousin Brucie' Morrow, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, circa 1965
Shown from left: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Bruce ‘Cousin Brucie’ Morrow, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, circa 1965

Fifty years ago, on Feb. 7, 1964, four charismatic, long-haired young men from Liverpool landed at the newly renamed JFK airport. They were met at the Pan Am arrival terminal by 5,000 screaming fans (mostly young women). Two nights later, they made their American television debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. More than 73 million people tuned in to experience what would be the start of a cultural revolution … and a musical love affair that has now lasted half a century.

John, Paul, George and Ringo. The Beatles. Perhaps the most hyped entertainers in the history of popular culture. And remarkably, a group of four extraordinarily talented musicians who managed to exceed overwhelming expectations from the publicity buildup.

The numbers are truly staggering. Twenty Beatles songs have topped the U.S. singles chart. Nineteen of their albums have hit the #1 position. They are the bestselling recording artists of all time by a wide margin, with more than 600 million albums sold worldwide.

No, the Beatles were not Jewish. We can lay claim to Steven Spielberg, Barbra Streisand, Albert Einstein, Bob Dylan and Sandy Koufax. But the Fab Four? Ringo Starr had a Jewish step-father (Harry Graves). His mother, Elsie Gleave Starkey was once rumored to be of Jewish ancestry, though nothing definitive has ever been proven. That’s about as close as we get to a “Jewish Beatle.”

But as for their supporting cast … well, let’s just say that if it weren’t for an assortment of businessmen, promoters, lawyers, visionaries, and a trio of spouses, the Beatles almost certainly would not be remembered as the lasting phenomenon they remain today.

Brian Epstein was born in Liverpool, UK, on Yom Kippur day in 1934, the son of Malka and Harry Epstein. He was raised in an Orthodox, Yiddish-speaking household.

In November 1961, Epstein “discovered” the Beatles at the famed Cavern Club in Liverpool. They were raw and unpolished, but Epstein recognized their immense potential. Two months later, he became the band’s manager. He encouraged them to amend their stage attire from leather jackets and blue jeans to suits and ties. In short order, he secured the band’s first recording contract, then managed their careers into unparalleled superstardom, until his untimely death at age 32 in August 1967.

Epstein’s music management company, NEMS was comprised almost entirely of Jewish businessmen. David Jacobs was Epstein’s top lawyer, and the man who negotiated the deals that put the Beatles’ likeness on merchandise ranging from T-shirts and dolls to chewing gum and bubble bath. It was this unprecedented merchandising that enabled the Beatles to transcend mere music and traditional fandom. The exposure alone from these countless licensed products far outweighed the millions of dollars in revenue earned from worldwide sales.

Sid Bernstein holding a Beatles concert poster.
Sid Bernstein holding a Beatles concert poster.

Pivotal in the launch of the Beatles’ popularity were a pair of New York radio personalities: Murray The K (Kaufman), and Cousin Brucie (Bruce Morrow). Both were front and center during the band’s New York arrival in 1964. Kaufman began his career in the Catskills, organizing comedy shows along the Borscht Belt.

By the time the Beatles arrived in New York, Murray The K was New York’s most beloved AM radio personality (on WINS). He found a way to sneak into the Plaza hotel after the Beatles’ arrival and get the first in-person interview with the band in America. This would be the start of a mutually beneficial relationship in which Kaufman proclaimed himself “The Fifth Beatle.”

Cousin Brucie (born Bruce Meyerowitz) is perhaps New York’s most legendary radio personality of all. Back in 1964, Bruce was the star DJ on WABC radio, which he playfully dubbed “WABeatlesC” at the height of Beatlemania. “The Cuz” got to interview the fab four at the Warwick hotel in New York in 1965, and later introduced them on stage at Shea Stadium before their historic concert that summer. Through the years, he became the Beatles “go-to” radio personality.

Prior to 1965, no musical performer had attempted to play a concert at an outdoor sports stadium. But New York impresario, Sid Bernstein harnessed the Beatles immense popularity by organizing the band’s landmark concert at Shea Stadium. Bernstein, who was born to Yiddish-speaking Orthodox parents in Harlem, first learned of the Beatles from reading imported British newspapers, long before they were known in America. He initially booked them to play at Carnegie Hall in 1964. The spectacular success led him to fill 55,000 seats with screaming Beatles fans at the home of the New York Mets. Bernstein passed away in August of 2013 at the age of 95.

Many of the Beatles most iconic publicity photographs were snapped by Slovakian Jewish photographer Dezo Hoffman. Hoffman, who first met the group in Liverpool in 1962, was also the man to capture the first color film footage of the legendary mop-tops. He would remain their “official photographer” through 1967.

Richard Lester was the visionary director, charged with the task of bringing the Beatles first motion picture, A Hard Day’s Night, to the big screen. Born to traditional Jewish parents in Philadelphia, Lester would later go on to direct the band in their second movie, Help. The producers of these iconic films were Walter Shenson and Bud Orenstein, both Jewish. The pair of films were huge box-office successes. Critic Roger Ebert called A Hard Day’s Night: “one of the great life-affirming landmarks of the movies.”

In 1967, Paul McCartney met American photographer, Linda Eastman, at a party in London. The Beatles bassist fell head over heels for the blonde-haired beauty. They were married in 1969 and remained a famously devoted couple until Linda’s premature death from breast cancer in 1998.

Brian Epstein's autobiography. Epstein was the first manager of The Beatles.
Brian Epstein’s autobiography. Epstein was the first manager for The Beatles.

Eastman was raised in Scarsdale, New York, by her parents Lee Eastman (a prominent entertainment attorney) and Louise Lindner Eastman, who was the daughter of Max Lindner, a major Jewish philanthropist in Cleveland, Ohio. Although non-observant, Linda McCartney’s three children with Paul (Mary, Stella and James) are all considered Jewish, as is her daughter, Heather from her first marriage.

Linda’s father, Lee Eastman represented Paul McCartney in business following the death of Brian Epstein in 1967. He would later be pitted against accountant, Allen Klein in a contentious dispute over who would be the Beatles new manager. John Lennon hated the idea of McCartney’s father-in-law making business decisions for the group.

He, George Harrison and Ringo Starr chose Klein (the son of a Kosher butcher from Newark, NJ) to run their affairs. It was a decision they would all live to regret, as Klein’s tenure ultimately resulted in a series of lawsuits that led to the dissolution of the band in 1970.

In October 2011, Paul McCartney married his third wife, Nancy Shevell. The wedding took place in London one day after the couple had observed Yom Kippur services at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in St. John’s Woods. Shevell was raised in Edison, NJ, by her Jewish parents, Myron and Arlene Shevell, who own a trucking freight company. Shevell’s first marriage was to attorney and political candidate, Bruce Blakeman, also Jewish.

As for the remotely, potentially Jewish Beatle, Ringo Starr, he met his second wife, Barbara Bach (born Barbara Goldbach in Jackson Heights) on the set of their movie, Caveman in 1980. The onetime James Bond girl has been married to the Beatles drummer since 1981. Oh, and in one of the more humorous Jewish Beatle connections, there is the business relationship between Starr and his longtime concert promoter, David Fishoff. From 1989 until 2003, Fishoff organized the concert tours for Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band. In an article from the Jewish Telegraph in 2010, the observant Fishoff recalled how every Friday afternoon, Ringo would call him before sundown to wish him a “Good Shabbat.” Even if he isn’t one of ours, clearly Ringo has learned the lingo and has grown up to be quite the mensch.

Blessed with G-d-given talent, the Beatles have managed to remain relevant a half century after touching down in New York. It’s been a remarkable run. Even with the untimely passing of two of its members, the Beatles music continues to inspire new generations. However, had it not been for a remarkable cast of supporting Jewish talent one wonders if they would have ever reached America back in 1964, let alone conquered it.

Lonnie Ostrow is a public relations, marketing, and web design professional. He presently works as the in-house marketing director, editor and personal assistant at Bradford Enterprises. He lives in Merrick, New York with his wife, Simona and their two daughters.



The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.